When I was growing up in Plymouth, Florida, my mother sometimes worked four jobs, but still my family didn’t have much. We didn’t even have a paved street in front of our house. We did have one small air conditioner, but the only time we were allowed to put it on was when our pastor was coming for Sunday dinner. Then that thing’d be blasting out cold, and I’d be standing right there in front of it thinking, now this is just like the rich people—least until one of my brothers or sisters yelled at me to get out the way, I was blocking their cool air.
I was born on December 19, 1972. When your family doesn’t have much money and your birthday is six days before Christmas, the one question you get used to hearing is, “Do you want your birthday present or your Christmas present?” Or? Did you say or? Whatever happened to and? Where my presents were concerned there never was an and. So I definitely grew up appreciating the value of things. When I wanted something I had to work hard to get it, and when I got something I learned how to take care of it. Since I was a child I can remember the thing I wanted most of all was the football. When I had a football in my hands I held on tight to it, and when somebody else had it in his hands, I would do whatever it took to get it from him. That was the way I always played the game of football: It’s my football, you’re just holding on to it temporarily.
For me, playing defense has always been just this basic: Gimme my ball.
A football is a pretty small, strangely shaped object to have played such a big role in my life. Nobody ever knows which way it’s going to bounce—or what the result is going to be. For me, it sure has taken some unexpected bounces. For example, it led to me forming one of the most talked about personal rivalries in football: Sapp v. Favre. At the end of the 1999 season, we were playing the Green Bay Packers, and the winner was probably going to the NFC Championship. One time early in the game I hit the great Packers quarterback Brett Favre and he fumbled. That ball was bouncing around on the ground, and I held him down on the ground so he couldn’t grab it. There was nothing he could do but watch it bounce away from him. And maybe while I was holding him down I pushed his helmet down into the turf a little bit too. Okay, maybe I pushed him a lot. When Favre got up he was kind of angry that he’d lost the ball and put his hands on me. Really? You really want to do this? Do you actually believe that is a sane thing to do? I slapped his hands away and turned to go to the sideline. After I took a few steps he screamed at me, “Hey, Big Boy, how much you weigh? The program says 276.”
I stopped and turned around to face him. “That was when I checked into camp last July. I weighed 307 last Thursday. Why you want to know?”
This is on the field, you understand, with the entire stadium standing and screaming, thinking we were about to go at it. Favre smiled at me and boasted, “’Cause I think I can outrun you,” he said.
“Oh, don’t you worry none,” I told him, “You’re gonna get a real good chance to try.” Maybe two plays later I grabbed him by the jersey, and he made the serious mistake of trying to get away from me. I chopped him right on the bridge of the nose.
Right away he started screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God, you broke my fucking nose.”
“Goodness me,” I said. “I’m sorry, but didn’t I hear you say you could outrun me?”
I had a great game. I sacked Favre three times, I had five tackles, I forced two fumbles and recovered one of them myself, and we won 29–10. The second sack I got a clean shot at him from behind; the poor man never heard me coming. Heaven, I’m in heaven.… My job was pretty straightforward: Inflict as much possible human pain on the opposing quarterback—within the rules. Now, I admit that I liked hitting running backs, but I loved hitting quarterbacks. Absolutely loved it. A running back is okay to tackle, but he’s going to fight back a little. But hitting a quarterback is like tackling a pillow. Quarterbacks are all soft and cushiony, and then when you got him down on the ground you get to lay on him for a few seconds and whisper in his ear that you’ll be right back. The quarterback has always been the biggest prize—that’s who the pretty girls come to see play, that’s who the camera focuses on—so when you sack that quarterback they just naturally have to pay attention to you.
Brett Favre was the biggest prize of all. He was building his the legend and the Green Bay Packers were our biggest rival. I always said before we played the Packers that I intended to get so close to him that I’d know what his kids had for breakfast and spilled on him. On this particular play Favre’s arm was in the air when I hit him like a ton of Sapps. I blew the air right out of him. I hit him so hard his shadow decided to retire. He laid on the ground face down for a few seconds until he remembered to breathe, and then finally he turned his head and looked up at me. I gave him my biggest grin and asked, “Who you think it is?”
And then he smiled right back at me and responded, lying right there in the dirt, “You got to love it, Big Boy.”
He got that right. I do love the game of football. I loved playing it, I love watching it, and I certainly love talking about it. I love the feel of a football in my hands, I love stopping by a schoolyard and watching little kids play a pickup game, I love reading the newspaper and magazine stories about the game. Football is the simplest, most complex game ever created. It’s a beautifully violent game. And it never has failed to bring me joy.
At Apopka High School I played on both offense, or as my mama called it, “the winning side,” and defense. I was recruited by the University of Miami as a tight end but was switched to defensive tackle. In professional football, for nine years at Tampa Bay and then four more years with the Oakland Raiders, that was my position. I was on the D-line. The job description of a defensive tackle is pretty basic: Knock people out of the way until you find the man with the ball. Keep him.
I played 13 seasons in the National Football League, which sometimes I also referred to as the No Fun League. During my career I knocked down so many people that I am one of only six players in pro football history to play in multiple Pro Bowls (seven consecutive games), be honored as the Defensive Player of the Year (1999), and win a Super Bowl (2002). I got known by fans for being a very rough player on the field. Reporters described me as “an every-down demolition man who blew up plays from the inside out” and a “300-pound monster truck with deceptive speed who rode roughshod over double and sometimes triple teams, collapsing pockets, stuffing running backs, and demoralizing quarterbacks.” But as my mother would say about that, a nice monster truck.
Sometimes I was accused of being too rough. Too rough for the NFL? Really? Okay, if the media and the officials say so it must be true, ’cause now that I am a football analyst on the NFL Network and ESPN I know that we in the media never get it wrong. The truth is that I never cared a bit what other people thought or said about me. I know who I am, I am a descendant of greatness, so I have never feared to do what I believed was right. For example, I had one move on the field that was called “rock bottom,” where I grabbed a ball carrier running laterally down the line of scrimmage around his legs, picked him up, carried him a few steps; and then put him down. I mean, I. Put. Him. Down. Whomp! When I did that to Marshall Faulk in a Monday Night Football game against the St. Louis Rams one of the broadcasters said, “I think Warren Sapp just spiked Marshall Faulk.”
Both on and off the field I earned a reputation for doing things my way. No one ever accused me of holding back. That is the only way I know how to be. I was pleased to offer my opinion to officials, to the league, and to fans, sometimes even before they asked for it. So much so that the New York Times wrote that I was “pro football’s biggest blabbermouth, known as much for his dominating play as his entertaining trash talk.”
I played hard, I played tough. That was my football! But I never played one game with malice or mean intentions. Well, admittedly there were a few plays from time to time when I got riled, but never a whole game. I only knew one way to play and that was all-out, and I played it that way in practice as well as in the game. I actually had to be taught by the great coach Rod Marinelli not to go all-out every play. Football fans either loved me or loved to hate me, but they always knew I was there. For years my no. 99 jersey was among the top-10-selling NFL team jerseys. I was given the honor of being a character on The Simpsons, and the year I retired I was invited to be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. I’ve been a judge on the Miss USA Pageant, I’ve been “Punk’d,” and I’ve even been slimed on Nickelodeon.
There are people who claim they were born to play football; that wasn’t me. My mother always told me I was born because she went to the witch doctor. Apparently my mother had been pregnant a long time, and people were beginning to wonder about it: “Annie still pregnant? That child must be real comfortable in there.” There was a lady in the neighborhood who decided my mother had been pregnant too long with me, so she gave her the $5 she needed to go see the witch doctor. This witch doctor, a fortune-teller, told her I was going to be born the next Tuesday. But if she didn’t have that baby by Tuesday, then she was to come back and see her again. My mother didn’t have five more dollars, so I was born at 4:32 a.m. the next Tuesday morning. One time after I had become a Pro Bowl player in the National Football League a reporter asked our preacher, Deacon McCraroy, what he remembered most about me when I was little. He smiled and said, “What I remember is that he was never little.” I weighed 9 pounds 14 ounces when I was born and after that I just kept going.
When I was a kid my brothers used to tell me that I didn’t have the same mother as they did. My mother, Annie Roberts, would say the same thing. “Before you were born,” she admitted, “I was something else. I was a tough fighter, I was partying and cussing, and off and on I was married. I turned my life around because the Lord let me know if I kept going like I was, I was gonna kill somebody or somebody was gonna kill me, so I’d better see about my spirit.
“What changed me was a visitation from the Lord. I was just lying in bed one morning, and all of a sudden this big light was coming toward me. I threw the cover back and told the Lord I would do whatever he wanted me to do. I turned my life over to the Lord and nothing was ever the same again.”
My mother was a church-going, Bible-reading woman who raised me to be prideful and value the proper things in life. Everything I have accomplished I owe to that woman. Everything. That was my world right there. You talk about hard work, I saw that old girl do it all for 36 years. She was an assistant teacher and worked in the cafeteria at the Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School. When she finished there she’d go on over to Quincy’s restaurant and work as a waitress and then finish the day at a local nursery where she potted plants. And never complained about it one word. She did it for her children. I watched her and I wanted to emulate her. She taught me to chase knowledge, to treat all people the same, and to be myself. “If a person can’t accept you for who you are,” she said, “don’t go changing to please them. They weren’t your friends to begin with.”
She had high expectations for me and set strict rules. Trust me, you did not break my mama’s rules. Those times I did, if she could catch up to me she’d whup me with whatever she could get her hands on first. If she couldn’t catch me, she’d throw something at me. She had a good arm for a mother. By the time I got to high school I was 6’2” and weighed 220 pounds, so that stopped right there. I remember her telling me proudly, “I ain’t gonna be hurting myself swinging no bat at you.”
My mother was the only person I ever feared. I wasn’t afraid she was going to hurt me; I was afraid I was going to let her down. So I listened to her. I used to take a quarter out of her purse and go down to Al’s Supermarket to play video games. When you’ve got only one quarter, you get good at those games. One time I was playing a video game named Kicker, a martial arts game. I was going for a million points, which meant I would flip the game; it would go back to zero, and I got to start all over again. Flipping a game was the ultimate goal. I had never done that before on this game. I was about 6,000 points short when Al told me, “Your Momma’s on the phone and she wants you to come home right this minute.” Oh my God! This was a choice no kid should ever have to make: Listen to my mother or flip Kicker! None of my friends were with me so I had nobody to pass it to either. Al was looking at me with serious pity. He knew. I will never forget the look on his face as I walked away from that game and out of the store. I was sick, sick. But I had to leave. When Annie Roberts said it was over, it was over. That score did hang up there for a long time, though.
Money was always a little bit short. When handheld video games first came out, oh did I want one. My cousin was getting one for Christmas and he didn’t even want it. I knew what I was getting for my birthday-Christmas present: Every poor kid knows there is no Santa Claus, there is no person to send a list to. We all knew that no jolly white guy was coming around our neighborhood at night to drop off presents. Even the pizza delivery guy wouldn’t come into my neighborhood at night. Every year I asked my mother for a bike for Christmas—I never got it, but I kept asking for it. But this year I told her, “I don’t want a bike, I want a video game.”
The very last thing she was going to spend money on was a video game. She thought video games were a waste of time. She said no and then explained her reasoning to me: “’Cause I said so.”
I had to find a way to get that game. I was walking out of the washroom in our house and I looked down and … oh my goodness. A $100 bill was just laying there in the corner. I figured all those Sundays I’d spent going to church were finally paying off. I did the figuring; the game was $63. I had $100. They were going to give me back $37. Thank you, Lord, I’ll never doubt you again.
I told my mother, “Mama! Look what I found! I found $100!”
That woman snapped that money out of my hand faster than Elastic Man. I’d never seen anybody move that fast. “You don’t find money in my house. It’s in my house, it’s my money.”
Don’t I even get a finder’s fee, I thought. Not in my mama’s house. Santa Claus did not bring that video game to me that year. She taught me early that the value of a dollar is 9-to-5. That $63 was either going to buy me a video game or put food on the table. I learned the difference between a need and a want.
I had my moments though. I was an usher in the church choir. Part of our job was to make sure that no one chewed gum in church. One Sunday I was walking down the aisle and I saw my mother chewing gum. I knew I had her. “Give up the gum, Mama,” I said. She just looked at me, trying to find a loophole. I gave her a big smile and held out a piece of paper to wrap it in.
My mother was always more concerned about my education than my tackling ability. It never occurred to any of us that playing a game was going to put food on the table. I was a good student, but I was lazy in class. I did what I had to do to get by. One time I got a bad progress report, and I knew that would make her unhappy. The last thing I wanted to do was make my mother unhappy, which is why I hid the report from her. At least that was my story; I only did it for her. I never destroyed a bad report; that would have been wrong. Instead I hid it in my pocket or the back of my notebook, so I could claim that I just forgot to show them to her. Of course, that way she had a fighting chance of stumbling over it.
Which she did one time. I was at football practice when I heard somebody say, “Uh oh, Sapp’s mother coming.” I looked up and she was coming across the field—fast. Somebody asked, “What’d you do, man?”
The only question was how much trouble I was in. “I’ll bet she found my progress report,” I said. There was anger in every step she took. She didn’t even stop at the coach. She came right up to me, slapped me on the back of my head, and said, “Go.”
I started walking. As I walked past our head coach, Coach Gierke, he said softly, “Oh yeah, guy.” It was like I was hearing his last words. I walked about another 20 yards and turned around for one final look before meeting my doom. “Turn around,” she ordered. “You keep looking forward.”
The very worst part of that day was that during the entire drive home she didn’t say one word. Not one word. That was awful, worse than being yelled at, because I knew I’d let her down. She was working all those jobs so I could get my education, and I was playing with it.
Of course, when we got home the yelling started. It seemed like the entire world was against me. The next morning I was back in school, and the first thing I heard as I walked in the door were those incredibly embarrassing words, “I heard your mother took you out of practice yesterday…”
The fact is that she cared about me like nobody else in the world. My biggest dream was that one day I would be able to provide a place for her to finally sit down and just be comfortable. And maybe have somebody work for her. The proudest day of my life came about three weeks after I signed my first professional contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and drove my mother in her new Mercedes to her new house.
In addition to my mother’s rules, as the youngest of six children, I had my three brothers’ and two sisters’ rules. My brother Parnell felt that I had no discipline, so he was going to help me find it. He was still living at home, so his rent consisted of washing the dishes and taking out the trash. I was the baby, 12 years old, and I didn’t have to do anything. Turned out he thought I could find discipline by cleaning the bathroom. First he wanted me to wash the dishes, telling me, “Mama lets you sit around doing whatever you want to. You gotta get some discipline. If you ain’t disciplined there is nothing in your life that ever will work. You got to have discipline, discipline, discipline. Now go ahead and start washing all those dishes.”
I knew that washing the dishes was his job. I told him, “I’ll wash the dishes after I’m 13. I’m not supposed to wash dishes when I’m still 12.” That was a rule I made up.
But there was no rule against cleaning the bathroom and the toilet. Every day Parnell would come home after work and tell me, “That bathroom must be cleaned. You need discipline.”
“I’m not cleaning the bathroom for you.”
“You’re not cleaning it for me, you’re cleaning it for everybody. You need some discipline.” When I complained about it he told me, “You don’t have to like it, you just got to do it.” I developed my own technique for cleaning an entire bathroom: Always start in the four corners and work inward. At first I didn’t clean the base of the toilet; I’d do the top but not underneath. He checked me on that. I cleaned underneath. A few years later when my mother was cleaning houses for the white ladies I’d go and help her. Bathrooms were my specialty, because I had experience. You learn from that when you’re growing up; you learn that you have to work hard to get what you need. The way I always say it is, work is a disease, but not everybody can catch it.
After my junior year at the University of Miami I was awarded the Rotary Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the best lineman or linebacker in college football. It’s not a particularly attractive trophy; it’s a 40-pound piece of granite, mostly it just looks like a fancy rock. But after Vince Lombardi II handed it to me I noticed that on the top of it there was one word engraved: Discipline. Just that one word, discipline. Whoa. I saw that and it shook me like a bell. Discipline. Of the awards I’ve won, that trophy is my proudest possession.
I definitely did not have the same father as my brothers, although one of my sisters and I had the same biological father. My biological father’s name was Hershey Sapp. I had his name, but he never was any bit a real father. Like many of the people I’ve played with, and too many of my friends, I grew up in a single-parent home. I used to tell my mother, “Like it or not, you’re my daddy and my mama.” There were too many times that man was supposed to pick up my sister and me for the weekend, and we just sat there waiting until all the hope was gone from us. When he walked out of the house and left my mother he had agreed to send her like $25 a week in child support for each of us, but he didn’t do that either. At most, he was a once-in-a-while shadow that cast darkness over our lives.
I was asked once if I ever missed my father. Miss him? I said the truth, “You can’t miss something you never had.”
There are some things that people can do to children that are just unforgiveable: My sister’s birthday is in early August, and a couple of weeks before then he came to see us. I was 11 years old, and she was about to enter her senior year in high school. The three of us sat at the kitchen table, and he started telling her about the wonderful present he was going to give her for her birthday. My sister’s eyes just lit up listening to him. She was dreaming about that present. I remember sitting there thinking, you lying motherfucker. He was selling that lie to my sister and she was totally falling over into it. I was so damn mad. I was only 11 years old, and I knew he was lying, but there was nothing I could do to soothe my sister’s pain that I knew was coming. I had the choice of confronting him at that table or letting my sister have her joy for at least a few weeks. I was 11 years old and I chose to let her be happy. No little kid should have to make that choice. I remember that day so vividly.
What I did have, what so many poor kids have, was sports. Baseball, basketball, throwing railroad rocks at cars, green-orange fights in the groves, and football. I played them all, all the time, but for me all the other sports were just a way of filling time till we got to football. Mostly I played with my brothers and their friends. So no matter what sport we played I was always the youngest. And they had a rule: Carlos—that’s what they called me—Carlos never wins. We’d play in the backyard, in the lot across the street, neighborhood against neighborhood, but no matter who we played against or where we played, I was always the youngest. For example, the Williams family had 12 boys. I played with them every day, and every one of them was older than me. They would push me to the limit of my ability because they were at least six or seven years older than me. I was always chasing older people.
When I played against my brothers I used to pray, c’mon Lord, be fair, let me beat them one time. Just one time. Just let me strike them out one time; just let me score more points one time; just let me score a touchdown one time. They would just beat on me until I couldn’t take it anymore. Finally I’d go in the house to cry, but I would never let them see me crying. They knew though, “Go ahead, go in the house with Mama and cry like a baby.”
“I’m just going to get some water.”
Mama would ask, “What’d they do to you?”
I’d tell her, but I wouldn’t let her see me cry.
“It’s okay,” she’d say, “You ain’t gonna win ’em all.”
“Win ’em all? I ain’t won none!” I hadn’t won a damn one ever, and nobody but me seemed to mind.
So when I finally had the opportunity to play against kids my own age … whoa! How long has this been going on? It was so easy for me it was a joke. I had been playing against people 10 years older than me; how was a kid my own age going to be better than me?
My brothers were all good athletes. In football they were all running backs. I always said that I met my first superstar in my own living room. It was my brother, Arnell Lykes. When he was living with my aunt in little bitty Redwood, Texas, his high school team won the state championship and he was the star running back. He once ran for 348 yards in a game against Bishop Moore. His old high school coach showed me his game films. Oh man, Arnell would be hit four times, five times on a play, and they couldn’t hold on to him. He was a beast, a monster. When I was seven years old I can remember watching him step out of a car wearing his state championship jacket, and I thought, it does not get better than this. When he wasn’t home I’d take that jacket out of the closet just so I could wear it around the house.
It wasn’t a big secret how great Arnell Lykes was. When I used to play in the Dust Bowl with my friends the rule was that soon as you got the ball you had to call out who you were: I’m Drew Pearson. I’m Tony Hill. We were playing one day and my friend caught a pass and screamed, “I’m Arnell Lykes.”
“Hold it.” I stopped the game. “You can’t be him, man. That’s my brother. You can’t be my brother.” But that was who he called. Arnell could have been a great college player. He was recruited by Pitt to take Tony Dorsett’s place. They offered him a full scholarship, but he turned it down. The reason was that he was afraid to leave home. That was the country boy mentality.
Nobody ever left Plymouth. Plymouth was the typical small southern town. We had a few hundred people, one restaurant, two stoplights, and not a lot of future. The most famous person who ever lived in Plymouth was Joe Frazier’s brother, and Frazier visited there a few times. It was near the bigger town of Apopka, which was known as the “indoor foliage capital of the world,” so there was always work for us in the nurseries, and Zellwood, which was famous for its corn festival. Plymouth wasn’t known for anything; the biggest business in the town was the muck farm.
The social center of Plymouth was the tree, a big old oak tree out by US 441. It was the only shady place around during the heat, so everybody hung out there. There’s where people would meet: “See you down at the tree.” And while they were enjoying the shade, maybe they were playing some cards, or throwing some dice, drinking a few beers. The tree was our honky-tonk. So when I was young my mama didn’t allow me to hang out there. I could go to the block and stand on the outskirts, but she was clear about it: “I do not want you at the tree. ’Cause I said so!”
But it seemed like eventually everybody who grew up in Plymouth ended up at the tree. You grew up there, maybe you ended up working in a nursery, maybe you moved to Apopka, maybe even all the way to Orlando, but you didn’t go far from the tree. That’s the way it had always been: We were supposed to do the same things people from Plymouth always did. Going to the same spot, doing the same things over and over again, knowing that our children were going to do it too. The same thing over and over. We weren’t supposed to experience anything different.
For most of the people I grew up with it was a black and white world, and we were the black part of it. The first time I visited New York City was before my junior year in college, at the Big East Conference preseason press conference. We went all over the city and finally took the boat out to see the Statue of Liberty. We were standing out there on the deck as the boat approached the island. I was with a white friend, Paul Kerzner, and he looked at it with awe. I did not get real nostalgic about it. My people did not take that route. We took the southern route.
I didn’t experience a great amount of overt racism growing up, but we were always aware that there were certain places we were not supposed to go. Growing up in the South you just understand that. It’s bred into you by the older people who surround you. It’s just not your place. If you don’t listen, it can be a hard lesson.
When I was 12 years old I went fishing with a friend on the other side of the lake one afternoon; “their” side of the lake. We were on the way home when one of those huge 4x4s with the light rack on top—we used to call them n----r hunting lights—and the gun rack in back stops right next to us. “Don’t you move, n----r boy,” he said. Then we heard click, click. I knew that sound. We didn’t wait. We took off right into the woods and ran through those trees. That was the last time I ever fished on that side of the lake. Fish weren’t no bigger on their side. Now, did I really think we were in danger? Probably not, but that wasn’t his point. He made his point.
So we knew we didn’t go to places like the Plantation House restaurant, down by the Burger King. That was their little spot. We didn’t even drive through the Herald Estates, though everybody knew that one black couple lived in there. We went to the tree.
My high school, Apopka High School, was a racially mixed school, and I don’t recall ever having any difficulty there. In school it was never about the color of your skin or what you had in your pocket. Especially on the sports fields. My football coach, Chip Gierke, was the closet thing I had to a father figure—and he was white. And I liked to say that he treated me just as badly as he treated everybody else, regardless of color. I learned from my mother: Don’t stereotype people. Judge people by their actions, not by the color of their skin. Treat each person as an individual. She never permitted me to allow race to become a factor in my world. When I complained that she spent seven hours cleaning a white woman’s house and got paid only $30 she stopped me. “It ain’t about that $30. It’s about the clothes, the introductions to other people, the extra $5. That woman did so many things for me; it ain’t about the $30.” I didn’t understand it at the time. There are a lot of other people in this world who would benefit from knowing my mother.
About the only rule I got left over from growing up in the Deep South is that I will never walk into a Cracker Barrel restaurant. At that time the dictionary definition of a cracker was “any male born in Florida or Georgia.” Maybe that really is what it means in polite conversation. In fact, I was told that originally they considered naming the Tampa Bay football team the “Crackers,” but we knew it meant something a lot less civil than that, that it described an attitude. So while my mother loves Cracker Barrel restaurants and tells me how nice they are and how good the food is, I just cannot go there. I cannot.
Probably the biggest difference in the races wasn’t where we came from, but where we were going. This part of the story is the same in just about every black and low-income community in this country: Too many of my friends got shot, killed, or went to jail. Dead and gone before you were 24 was the rule. There were drugs on the street, we all knew where the crack houses were, and we saw the AIDS epidemic up close. Most of us didn’t have the positive role models in our lives; most of us didn’t have two parents in our home. The difference for me was sports. My homies knew I had a chance to get out, so when they were doing what they were doing, they wouldn’t let me get in their car. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that same story from other NFL players. “They wouldn’t let me get in the car.” They understood that we had a chance for a better future, and they were not going to take it away from us.
I always knew there was something bigger than Apopka out there waiting for me. Something that would sustain me for a long time. I was never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over. I needed something different. The only way out that any of us knew, really, was sports. I knew that was possible because Teddy Booger’s—that was Preston Weaver’s nickname—older brother went to the Baltimore Orioles. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it, but I knew I was getting out of there. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was leaving, and my mama was going with me. We were getting out of there; we definitely were getting out of there.
My brothers made me an athlete. For example, they taught me how to swim. We were standing on the dock out at Rock Springs, and I was watching everybody dive into the water. I was about six years old, trying to get up the nerve to dive in. My brother walked up behind me and pushed me in. I came up out of that water flapping my arms. “Can you swim?” he yelled.
I was flapping my arms. “I can now.”
My mother was furious, screaming at my brother, “You pushed my baby off the pier.” I yelled back, “Don’t worry about nothin’, Mama, I’m swimming. Look at me, I’m swimming.” Maybe that was the worst way to learn how to swim, but I didn’t have a lot of options.
As I got a little older my brothers let me play with them on the town baseball team. They needed a ninth. But even though I was the youngest player on our team I had the fourth highest batting average. Now being truthful, I also was the best at math, so they let me keep the statistics. “You sure that’s right, Carlos? You really hitting .500?”
“Here, look at the book. It’s right there in black and white.” You write it down, it’s there.
One time we played against Rock Raines and his kids in Sanford, Florida. I was playing second base. My brother was playing first. Raines was with the Montreal Expos, a future Hall of Famer, and he hit a shot right past my brother. I dived for it, and the ball hopped right into my glove. I scrambled to my feet and threw him out at first. Oh yeah, oh yeah, that was me. After the game Rock Raines stopped me and said, “That was a great play, son.” Oh my goodness. That was the best memory I ever had on a baseball field.
I didn’t play in any organized leagues. Pop Warner football for kids was based on weight, so bigger kids like me were excluded. When I was eight I weighed more than most 12-year-olds, and you can’t put an eight-year-old against a 12-year-old. At least most eight-year-olds. As far as I was concerned that wouldn’t have been fair to the 12-year-olds. I was already playing with much older people. Instead I would play with my brothers and my friends. We would go at it every day, all day long. Plymouth had four neighborhoods, the Quarter, the Blacktop, Across the tracks, and the Hill. We’d play against each other in every sport. You go get your four friends, I got my four friends, and we’ll meet you in the park. We’d play in the street or at the Dust Bowl, a dirt lot down the block, until it was too dark to see. It didn’t stop till somebody got hit in the eye with a pass, and then that was it, game suspended. But even then it was, “Come on, one more play. I know you can see, you still got one good eye.” We’d always play close games too, 77–70, maybe 84–79. Everybody wanted to be on offense. Nobody wanted to play defense.
The very first time I played organized football was in high school. My mother did not want me playing football. She had seen my brothers come home all broken up, and she would have to put them together for the next game. She’d had enough of that; I was her baby and she was going to protect me.
I knew the game of football—there was no rule, no route that I didn’t know. I’d learned it from playing it, from watching the Tampa Bay Yucks, as we called them, on television, watching my brothers play, and from reading their playbooks. I practically memorized their high school playbooks, and they would teach me how to catch the ball, how to block and tackle, how to play the game. I absorbed knowledge. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to learn everything possible about the game. But if not for Troy Rainey I never would have played.
Troy was my best boy, and at the end of our first day at Apopka High School we were walking toward the door with two girls, and he looked at me and asked, “Where you going?”
“I am getting on the bus, I got to go home.”
“You crazy?” he said. “We’re gonna play football.”
I wish. My mother had specifically told me I could not play football, but suddenly I saw a loophole. It was always much better to ask my mother for permission rather than forgiveness. My mother and Troy’s mother Lois were friends. She was like my second mother. I figured maybe if I put Troy into it my mother would let me play. I called her at work and told her Troy needed me to play, “You know, Lois’s son.”
Maybe I caught her busy, but she didn’t think about it. “Oh, okay. Go ahead.”
Slam! I slammed down that phone so fast she didn’t have time to change her mind. We ran to the gym. That day was the first time in my life I had ever put on football pads.
People were serious about their football at Apopka. The Blue Darters—a darter is a predatory bird, like a chicken hawk, and some of them are blue—had produced several Division I college players and about six NFL draft choices; including the 15th pick of the 1988 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first pick, Aaron Jones. And Sammie Lee Smith, who was the Miami Dolphins’ first-round draft pick in 1989, played four seasons in the NFL. High school football in Florida isn’t a religion; it’s much more serious than that. I’ve heard it said that the only reason certain people go to church on Sunday is to pray for the local high school on Friday night. In Apopka, when people talk about my playing career, they might mention that I also played professional football. But as far as they are concerned, the greatest play of my career was the catch I made against our biggest rival, Evans High School. Sammie Smith’s brother, Danny, was our quarterback, and we were down a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. His pass led me too much, and I stretched out full length and caught the ball in the air just before I hit the ground. It led to the tying touchdown. Talk to my people about football and that is the play they will remember.
But that first year when Troy and I reported for the junior varsity it didn’t even occur to me that this was the first step to a professional football career. I was just hoping I would get to play on the junior varsity.
Until the day before our first game I was second-string linebacker behind Scott Rutherford. JV games were played on Thursdays, and on Wednesday Coach Lombardi—that was my first coach, Coach Lombardi, isn’t that great?—told me that Scott Rutherford was going up to the varsity and that I was starting. Then he started going crazy on me. “How can they take him away from me right now? What do they expect me to do!” We took football seriously at Apopka, even JV football.
I told him, “Relax Coach, I gotcha.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “That was my best player.”
“I gotcha,” I repeated. “Don’t worry about it.”
On my first play of my life in an official league game Coach Lombardi called a blitz. Gimme the ball! I just roared through the line. The quarterback was rolling to his left and I started chasing him. I don’t think he knew I was there, because suddenly he stopped and braced himself to throw the ball. I hit him square in the chest. Cracked his sternum. They had to cart him off the field. The very first play of my career, a sack and a cracked sternum. One play, one quarterback. Maybe this game was a little easier than I thought. Soon as I got to the sidelines I said to Coach Lombardi, “Told you.”
He responded, “Well, I guess you are gonna hold it down for me.”
I had the natural talent, the size, and the desire. I was raw, but I was bigger and faster than anyone else on the field. I remember Coach Lombardi giving me his best compliment, “Son, you stand out like a turd in a punch bowl!”
That made me proud, a turd in a punch bowl. After I’d played three or four games with the JV they decided to promote me to the varsity, but I told them I didn’t want to go. This was the first time in my life I’d played against people my own age and I was loving it.
I made the varsity as a junior. My first game was against our big rival, Lake Brantley. Cablevision had just started showing high school football in Florida, and Apopka vs. Lake Brantley, the poor kids vs. the rich kids, was their “Game of the Week.” They were bragging that this was Lake Brantley’s best team in 20 years, and supposedly we were going to be a good test for them. They failed. We beat them 55–14. We had so much talent that year that 18 of our 22 starters eventually were offered Division I scholarships, so I only played one way, tight end on offense. My first game I had two receptions for 30 yards and two touchdowns. I beat the future Boston Red Sox player Jason Varitek for both of them. I ran right over him and then stepped on his chest as I was going into the end zone.
I also played against another future baseball star, Johnny Damon. He was a little bitty safety. I caught a pass coming across the middle and this kid was coming at me. Really? You’re gonna tackle me? Little guy like you? Get out of my way. He got himself a concussion.
Even with all that talent we finished the season 5–5. My coach liked to change our offense every week. He was constantly experimenting with new plays. The first week we ran the Miami offense that featured three wideouts, one running back, and a tight end, and we scored 55 points, so naturally the next week we lined up in a Power-I and got beat 14–0.
Eventually I ended up playing both ways and even doing the punting. If they had wanted me to sell hot dogs at the concession stand I would have done that too. Anything to do with football is what I wanted to do. We didn’t have a punter so I tapped Coach Gierke on the shoulder and asked, “You want me to punt the ball for you?”
He lit me up. “You think you can do everything, don’t you? I’m getting a little sick of this.”
Even back then no one ever used the words shy and Sapp in the same sentence. I told him, “Don’t worry, I’m gonna save your ass.” My first punt ever was against Lake Brantley. We were back in our own territory and I was going to blast us out of there. I took the snap and laid into it. That ball took right off—straight up into the air. Eight yards. My first punt, eight yards. Oh my God. Good thing I was playing both ways that season so I didn’t have to go to the sideline. I didn’t even look at the sideline. There was nothing good waiting there for me. Eight yards.
But I finished the season with a 43.5-yard punting average, mostly because I had an 80-yard punt against Lake Mary. That’s right, 80 yards. Eight-0 yards. We were backed up on our own 10-yard line, and this time I got into it. It went sailing over the returner’s head and took a big bounce. Lake Mary loved their soccer, so their field was hard as rocks. That ball hit and just kept bouncing, bouncing, ending up on their 10-yard line. Of course, I did the natural thing, went right over to our sideline to get a little water. Smiled at the coach, how you doing, Coach. I gotcha.
Even though my mother hadn’t wanted me to play, she came to every game. Never missed one. No matter how loud the crowd was, I always could pick out her voice cheering for me. In those days she didn’t really understand the game that well. She’d sit in the stands with her hands over her eyes until the friend she came with told her the play was over. Then she’d start screaming at the other team, “Get off my boy, get up off my boy.” Many years later Keyshawn Johnson came to play for us in Tampa Bay, and at our first home game, he came over to me and asked, “Who’s that lady over there yelling like that?”
I knew. “That’s my mother.” Two million people in the stadium cheering, and above it all my mother’s voice stood out. That woman took her cheering seriously.
I also played basketball at Apopka. I’m not telling no lies here: I could play. I was six feet tall at 14 years old and I could dunk. I mean, dunk! Whoomp! Two points, Sapp. One time I was arguing with Michael Jordan about playing basketball, and I explained to him, “When I played anything within 15 feet of the basket was mine. You could stand out there all day shooting that raggedy-ass jump shot of yours, but you come inside 15 feet I promise you, you’re going down.”
Michael thought I was kidding, until the great coach George Raveling heard us arguing and came on over. He told Michael, “I went down to Orlando to see this boy…”
“Willy Fisher,” I said. You bet I remembered it.
“Willy Fisher,” he agreed. “His team was playing Warren’s team. And I’ll tell you what, Michael, Warren isn’t kidding. One on one he was unstoppable.” Then he turned around and walked away.
I scored 1,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds in high school. Senior year I even got a basketball scholarship offer—from Mars Hill College, a Baptist school just outside Asheville, North Carolina. I appreciated that offer, but I turned it down. There are not too many 6'2" power forwards in the NBA. And honestly, my version of a blocking foul and every basketball official in the world’s version of a blocking foul was probably a little different. Oh, basketball’s not a contact sport? Really?
My best subjects in school were sports and girls. In addition to all the sports awards I received, I was voted Apopka’s “Most Flirtatious Male.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t do my academics, I was just lazy about it. But when something got my attention I was good at it. Chemistry, for example. I loved chemistry. My theory of chemistry was simple: Get the periodic chart and let’s mix stuff up. For example, I will never forget the day our chemistry teacher taught us how to make an exploding sulfur ball. He made a sulfur ball, took the whole class out to the lake in front of the school, and tossed it in the water. Big deal. The ball sank a few feet and then … poom! Few seconds later a fish comes floating up to the surface. That’s chemistry? Oh my God! I glanced at my friend Maurice, our eyes met, and together we saw the future. Sulfur ball fishing!
That teacher actually taught a class of teenage boys how to make fish-killing sulfur balls. You had to believe that man had supreme confidence that we all really liked him. But like I said, when something in school got my attention, I was good at it. I played in the band too. When I started they looked at me and said, “You’re a drummer.” I guess they figured I liked to hit things. When I told them I didn’t want to play the drums they gave me a trumpet, a baritone, and then a trombone. Blow, Warren, blow! I played them all, trumpet, trombone, tuba—everything except the French horn, I did not do French horn—under the direction of band coach Warren C. Barrett. Made second seat in the band, although because I was growing bigger it actually was second and third seat.
My real difficulty in school came from the fact that the work the teachers wanted me to do and what I wanted to do were not necessarily the same. I loved reading, for example. My senior year I read 52 books, but probably not one of them was a book the teachers required me to read. What I like to refer to as “my independent studies” caused a real problem for me about college.
When my brother Parnell was being recruited for college we kept a bucket by the front door, and it got filled up with letters from the top football schools in the country. Michigan, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Florida, Alabama, they were all writing to my brother. I’d pick those letters up and run my finger over the embossed logo on the envelope. I couldn’t believe the same teams I was watching on television every Saturday wanted my brother to come play for them.
After an athlete becomes a successful professional player, people sort of assume he was always a star—Warren Sapp was so strong that five minutes after he was born he sacked the doctor. Warren Sapp was the greatest defensive tackle in the history of second grade. But that wasn’t me. Until my junior year I wasn’t exactly on the big-time college radar. It was more like I was under the table the radar was sitting on. But suddenly I started getting those letters my brother had gotten: “We’re watching you, and we’ve got the greatest football program in the whole history of college football. We’d be doing a great favor allowing you to come play for us…” By the time that season ended I had my own bucket sitting by the door. I could have pretty much gotten a scholarship from any major program in the country.
At the beginning of my senior year I was ranked the number one tight end in Florida high school football. What none of those people doing that ranking knew was that it didn’t look like I was going to be playing football that year. I had quit the team at the end of my junior year. I have had a lot of highlights in my football career, but you never forget the low moments. It’s overcoming those rocks that gets you to the top of the mountain. After you become an All-Pro, win a Super Bowl, receive a lot of honors, most people would assume those high school football games lose a little bit of meaning. That isn’t true at all for me. I still bleed blue and white. I am a Blue Darter for life. The fact is that those lessons I learned about life while playing football at Apopka are what made me an All-Pro.
In the last game of my junior year our star running back, Roscoe Griffin, needed 350 yards to win the state rushing title. Coach Gierke really wanted him to win that title. Our game strategy was to hand off to Roscoe and block for him. Every play. Every damn play. Hand off to Roscoe. Roscoe runs left. Roscoe runs right. Roscoe runs up the middle. The other team finally figured our strategy. They lined up 19 guys to stop him. At the end of the first half he’d only gained 150 yards. I told Coach Gierke that the only possible way Roscoe’s gonna get those 200 more yards he needed was for us to open up this game. We needed to start throwing the football so they couldn’t key on him every damn play. Throw it a little, loosen it up, then get Roscoe running again. Coach told me directly, “Shut up.”
Shut up? Really?
Really. Coach Gierke was stubborn. Apparently Roscoe was going to keep running the ball till the cows came home and tackled him. No thank you. In the third quarter I told Coach, “You don’t throw the ball this next series, you’re gonna play the rest of the game with someone else at tight end.” Roscoe, Roscoe, Roscoe, punt.
That’s it. I walked off that damn field, threw my pads down, and told my mom, “C’mon, we’re going home.” I walked out of that stadium listening to the cheers fading behind me. I don’t know that anybody even realized I was missing. It hurt. It was not my proudest moment as an athlete, but I had to stand up for what I believed was right. There probably was a better way to make that point, but I was 16 years old, and I allowed my pride to get out in front. Right or wrong, it was stupid for me to take that stance.
As some football fans may be aware, this was not the only time in my career that this happened.
Just the first and memorably painful time. I figured that was the end of my football career, except for playing in the Dust Bowl across the street. Instead I focused on basketball, and Mars Hill College started looking mighty good.
The first day of football practice of my senior year I was getting ready to go home. Coach Will Carleton saw me leaving with my girlfriend and stopped us. He told her to go on home and told me to go to football practice. I asked, “Are you gonna take me back on the team?”
“We are, but you need to apologize to the man. Maybe he’s wrong, but you can’t do what you did. You got to learn how to be a soldier in the army and listen to orders, even if you don’t like them.”
I walked into Coach Gierke’s office with an apology in my mouth, but it never got out. He looked up at me and asked, “You ready?”
“Coach…” I started.
“No, I just want to know if you’re ready. I’m going to ask you to lead my team. You think you know football, well, I’m putting in a whole new offense, and I need somebody to take charge on the field. I’m gonna ask a lot of you because I think you can handle it. Can you do that?”
“Good. Go get ready.” He slapped me on the shoulder. On the way out I passed Coach Carleton. Told him, “I didn’t even get a chance to say I’m sorry.”
“I know. That’s his way of letting you know he had some wrong too.”
I had a monster senior season. Not only was I playing against kids my own age, a lot of them were even younger than me. Are you kidding me? It was like taking a football from a baby. First game, again versus Lake Brantley, on offense I had three catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. On defense I had 10 tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble. And I punted. The next morning the newspaper called it … the Sapp Attack!
After our next game the local newspaper, the Apopka Chief, described me as “a one-man doomsday machine who played tight end on offense, outside linebacker on defense and also handled the punting while catching a 67-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion. In between he intercepted a pass, knocked down two others, forced two fumbles and tackled anything near the ball.”
That bucket of scholarship offers was overflowing.
Among the first letters I received was one from the University of Michigan. My English teacher, first period, Miss Katzenberger, was a big Michigan pusher, and I think she wrote to them about me. They sent me the standard letter: We’re watching you, we’ll stay in contact, maybe we’ll even invite you for a visit. Good luck, have a great season. Oh my God! Coach Bo Schembechler writing directly to me! The Big Blue! Playing in the Big House with 100,000 people cheering and everybody in the country watching on TV. I touched that big M on the envelope and felt a jolt of electricity shooting through me. I went directly to my guidance counselor to figure out what I had to do to go there. Sapp, Michigan; Michigan, Sapp. It even rhymed.
Well, least in my mind it rhymed.
Then I heard from the University of Maryland. The Terrapins. Loved that little turtle on the envelope. The letters kept coming. One of my high school coaches had accepted a job at Mississippi State and he was recruiting me. Eventually I heard from all the Florida schools, the whole Southeastern Conference, most of the Big Ten—our poor mailman was a little more bent over each week. This was maybe the biggest decision I’d ever had to make in my life. For a young man from a little bitty town I had a very sophisticated way of judging these schools. I eliminated the University of Notre Dame, for example, because they didn’t put player names on the back of their jerseys. When I caught a pass how was anybody gonna know it was me? The weather was also an important factor. The only cold I liked came out of that air conditioner when the pastor came for dinner. I had never even seen snow. My man Brad Culpepper, who would be my teammate at Tampa Bay, was another Florida boy who considered going to Notre Dame. He was all set to accept their scholarship offer when he went for his official visit in February. Coach Lou Holtz guaranteed him a national championship if he went there. But it was freezing cold, it was snowing, and the girls were … less than attractive. The next weekend he visited the University of Florida. The sun was shining and the girls were beautiful. “I promise you,” he told me once, “I had two reasons for going to Florida. The girls there were twice as pretty as anyplace else.”
Culpepper and I were both very fortunate to have been born in the great state of Football. I read all the letters I got, I imagined what it would be like playing in those great stadiums around the country, but the truth is when you’re already living in the best place in the world to play football, there wasn’t no need to go anyplace else. With the University of Florida, Florida State, and Miami all playing in that beautiful Florida weather, I was already living in tight end heaven.
I grew up a Florida State fan, loved those Seminoles, but Miami coach Dennis Erickson had been one of the first people to try to recruit me. Coach Erickson liked to take quick high school tight ends and linebackers and turn them into college defensive ends and tackles. Quickness is different than straight-out speed, quickness is moving laterally, getting out of your stance, attacking. I was quick, I have always been quick. Quicker than most everybody else. Here’s an example of how quick I am: I’m already in the middle of the next page and you’re still reading this paragraph. That’s how quick I am.
Coach Gierke had a relationship with an offensive coach at Miami, Greg Smith, who had originally asked him about me, “He’s an athlete, idn’t he?”
And Coach told him, “Greg, you ain’t kidding.”
C’mon, what did I know about choosing a college? Everything I knew about college came from football magazines and TV commentators. I wasn’t thinking about eventually playing professional football; I didn’t think that was possible. My dream was playing college football on TV. Most high school athletes have absolutely no understanding about the recruiting process. For the universities football is a total business. It’s all about the Jeffersons: Winning games, filling the stadium, TV revenue, and invitations to a New Year’s bowl game. Meanwhile the young player is running his finger over the embossed logo on the envelope and dreaming about the glory. The universities recruit hundreds of kids every single year; meanwhile that kid gets one shot at making the right choice. Who’s gonna get the best deal?
I wasn’t just making this decision for myself. I was carrying Plymouth with me. That’s the way it is when you come from a small town. People would sit there under the tree debating the best place for me to go to college.
I made my permitted three recruiting visits. I’ve heard all the stories about the way recruits are treated on their visits. Money, girls, promises; I’m still waiting. Maybe it’s true, but that wasn’t my experience. The only so-called illegal offers I got were invitations to bring my mother or my girlfriend with me on my sanctioned visits. Nobody put one of those balls of cash I’ve heard about in my pocket. Culpepper was one of the most highly recruited players in the country in 1987, and no matter what people like to believe, his experience was similar to mine. In addition to the pretty girls, he told me once, “I went to Florida for all the right reasons—to get paid! And they never paid me a cent.”
I saw snow for the first time in my life at Michigan State. The ground was covered with it when I landed. I’d never seen anything so white. I got off the plane and told the coach, “I don’t have a coat.” They put me in a Michigan State jacket, gloves, a skully, and I was good. Good? There is no greater red carpet than the one a university lays down for a blue-chip prospect. By the time I left, the way they treated me I was convinced I was king. And as I got back on that airplane they made me give back the jacket, gloves, and skully.
The University of Florida was the next visit. My mother and my girlfriend drove up there with me. Coach Steve Spurrier picked me up at the Big Lake, which is where everybody gets together in the evening, and asked my mother if he could take me to his office. Me and my new best friend Coach Spurrier went to his office, and he put on tape of Kirk Kirkpatrick, the tight end who caught 66 balls his senior year. That’s me, I thought. There I am right there on that tape. The door opened and someone walked in, but I couldn’t see who it was. It was the quarterback, Shane Matthews, just happened to be stopping by. He said, “Son, you come to Florida and I’ll throw you six balls a game. Guaranteed. You might have to make a play on one of them, it might be behind you, but the rest of them’ll be right where you want it.”
I looked at Spurrier and said, “Where do I sign?”
“Your quarterback promises me he’s throwing me the ball, you told me I’m gonna play. I’m going to be a Gator.”
We went to get my mother and went back to the office. Coach Spurrier wanted us to meet his tight end coach, Dan Reeves. My mother was standing at the end of the hallway. Coach Reeves came out of his office and said, “Hi M’am.”
My mother stepped in front of me and said, “No.” That was it. They handed us a check for gas and we left. No explanation, nothing, just “No,” and we left. I didn’t bother to ask why. Long time later she explained, “I just didn’t like the atmosphere. Walk in the door, there was this big ole’ stuffed Gator sitting there. Looked liked it was smiling. I can’t explain my feelings, but it was not a place I thought was comfortable.”
I wasn’t going to be a Gator.
Florida State was my first choice mostly because my girl was going to Florida A&M, an historical black college that was right down the street, to be a pharmacist, and because it was Florida State. This was my team growing up. I met Coach Bobby Bowden in his office, and he told me he had two tight ends on the team: “Lonnie Johnson can’t catch a cold butt naked in Alaska and Warren Hartz’s a fat ass. Son, you come to Florida State and you got my word on it, you’ll play as a freshman. You’ll have to fight for the job, but I just told you about the competition.”
I sat there thinking, two years from now when I’m a sophomore and some hot-ass recruit is sitting in this chair you gonna call me a fat ass like you just did to those two players? I wouldn’t play for you to save my mother’s life. I said, “Thank you very much, I’ll think about it and let you know.”
When Coach Gierke called me to ask me about my visit I told him that Coach Bowden sat there and cussed out his own players. “I never heard you talk that way about none of us.” I told him the whole story. Finally Coach Gierke got me to agree that if Coach Bowden came to visit my mother I would reconsider Florida State.
Instead of coming to my house, Bobby Bowden met my mother at her job at the elementary school. Coach Gierke told me, “You won’t believe this, but this guy thinks you live in the hood, and he was worried about somebody coming by for a drive-by shooting. I told him he was crazy.”
Wasn’t going to be a Seminole either.
I hadn’t seriously considered Miami because it was in Miami. My mother used to watch Miami Vice so she knew that Miami was too big and dangerous. If Miami had been someplace else, going there wouldn’t have been a problem. But still we went up there to visit the campus. Practically the first person my mother met was Dr. Anna Price, who explained that she would be my academic advisor. She told my mother her job was to make sure I went to class and got an education. Then she explained that the University of Miami actually wasn’t in Miami. Not Miami Vice Miami. The campus was in Coral Gables, she said. “Your son doesn’t have a car, and you know we don’t do public transportation very well down here. He isn’t going anywhere.”
My mother gave her our phone number.
Coach Erickson was completely honest with me. The first thing he told me was that I wasn’t going to play my freshman year. Had to be the greatest salesman ever: Recruiting me by telling me that if I went to Miami I wasn’t going to play my freshman year. “We’ve got five tight ends already,” he said. “We’ll probably redshirt you your first year, but that’ll give you a chance to get acclimated to college life.”
He sold me. I was thinking, little country boy like me, I’d have a whole year to get my schoolwork down, get the campus down, get the girls … get the campus down without the weekly pressure of big-time college football. And I was a raw talent; I knew there was no way I was ready to play right away at the University of Miami.
I was going to be a Hurricane.
There was only one thing standing between me and the University of Miami: Geometry. I was strong in every part of math—except geometry. I couldn’t write a proof. I knew it, I could say it, but I couldn’t write it. You start talking geometry, I’m a dead man. You can’t block a postulate. I flunked geometry twice and finally made a D in summer school. My senior year I needed a B in Algebra II to get my scholarship. Algebra was easy for me; know the formula and plug in the numbers. I had an A right up till the end, when Algebra II suddenly turned into … geometry. I struggled. Finally I went to see Miss Perry and told her, “You know I’m more than competent in math, but I just can’t write a proof. I don’t know why, but I can’t do it.”
“Young man,” she said, “I’ve watched you sitting there with smoke coming out of your ears trying to write a proof. I know how hard you worked. Don’t worry, you are going to college.”
Under the tree that was big news.
Copyright © 2012 by Warren Sapp and David Fisher